The transition from the classical to the post-classical period marked a great divergence between each era’s respective legacies and contributions to history. While the classical era is noted for being a period of intense cultural flourishing, post-classical times are best remembered for achievements in other areas. Despite the geographical distance between the various regions, all of the world’s the post-classical societies underwent major economic developments in trade and communications as well as cultural growth through expansion of religion. Within North and West Africa, these influences shaped the development of religion and resulting in notable distinctions between the cultures, economies, and societies of the classical period and post classical period. Despite these discrepancies, some commonalities such as the continuing use of the trans Saharan trade route remained throughout the era, highlighting characteristics that defined the time period as a whole. While religion in post-classical North Africa shaped its culture, more frequent interactions with other regions through trade led to an increase in economic developments and new technologies, as Islamic ideals continued the North and West African gender patriarchy, and social structure.The spread of religion during post-classical times was rapid and its impact on the culture of North Africa transformed post-classical North and West Africa.
One major religion that transformed post classical Africa was Islam, introduced to Africa during the early 7th century. However, it gained a larger following once the Trans-Saharan trade route gained efficiency through the newfound use of camels, allowing for Trans-Saharan travel to be significantly quicker. The introduction of Islam to Tunisia in 670 CE, and subsequently to the rest of North and West Africa had an irreversible and overwhelming impact on its cultural development. As Islam took its hold on North and West Africa, it unified and molded each society to gain the common characteristics of religion (Islam), language (Arabic), and art.
This contributed to African culture as the influence of Islam took hold on the lives of many young people, shaping their education and values. Askia Muhammad al-Turi in Muslim Reform in Songhay describes how Islam is prevalent in many of their lives. Askia Muhammad al-Turi wrote this piece in order to spread the Islamic religion hoping to better unjust social order.
He provides a point of view biased in favor of the Songhai society as his purpose is to spread the way of life he portrays in his writing. He focuses on the positive and beneficial aspects of the culture, which includes its flourishing education and philosophical values as well as the freedom of womens’ dress within this society. This would have resulted in the exclusion of the possible negative aspects of society within Songhai during his visit. He recorded his observations of Songhai, taking notice to the substantial number of hours dedicated to prayer and learning the Koran at all ages. He wrote to The North African Muslim theologian Muhammad al-Maghili telling him about the many Muslim scholars who would go to this region, allowing it to become a major intellectual and legal training center for all of Sudan. Education and the development of philosophy became a focal point of society. Much of their education revolved around memorizing the Koran, their culture, consisted of fulfilling their duties written within the Koran. Muslims were required to complete the five daily prayers in mosques and the annual pilgrimage ritual took place in the cities of Makkah and Medina.
Islamic tribes in North and West Africa were set at an early stage to preach and practice Islam. As the culture of North and West Africa evolved, trade throughout the trans Saharan trade route remained a factor that attributed to economy throughout the post classical Africa, spurring interactions with foreign civilizations and new technologies. The interaction between African Tribes across Africa as a result of trade is an example of the many relations with other regions that Africa continued during post-classical times, yet significantly spread to further regions allowing for a wider range of communication, triggering increased advancements of ideas and technology. Within Selections from the Rihla, Ibn Battuta recorded the successful trade between Cairo and Alexandria. Ibn Battuta, a traveler and scholar from Morocco was fascinated by the characteristics of North African exchange, focusing on the exchange of dates and grains imported from upper Egypt. Battuta acts as a reliable and unbiased point of view as he wrote towards an audience hoping to gain information about the traditions and customs of trade and society of this region.
His goal was to observe and record rather than to add personal insight. Despite this, Battuta only remained in each region for a short period of time, only exposing himself to a snapshot of the North Africa’s trade and culture during its flourishing late post classical era. This would have resulted in a highly positive experience with trade in this region. Especially within Cairo and Jerusalem, Muslim influence was growing and civilizations were flourishing culturally and economically.
Although the use of the trans Saharan trade route was previously used, during the post classical era of North and West Africa, the stretch of land the route connect increased drastically. As the trans Saharan trade route became more efficient with the use of camels as a form of travel, trade across Africa flourished connecting the Northern regions together that were not previously easily accessed. This is shown within The Catalan Atlas by Abraham Cresques, a Jewish Spaniard cartographer, commissioned by the king of Aragon to create this atlas, where it a camel rider approaching Mansa Musa. The camel was the only animal native to West Africa that could be domesticated for travel. Africa below the Sahara for long periods had only limited contact with the Northern civilizations. Between 800 and 1500 C.
E., the frequency of contact increased. Social, religious, and technological changes influenced daily African life. The spread of Islam within Africa linked its regions together through trade, religion, and politics. States like Mali and Songhai built on military power and dynastic alliances.
Especially in West Africa, peace among traders was strongly promoted shown through Benin Bronze plaques. Many of these plaques portray images of possible traders holding hands, hung up on the Benin palace walls during the edo period (1575-1625). City-states in western and eastern Africa were tied to larger trading networks.
Parts of Africa south of the Sahara entered into the expanding world network leading to the developments of new ideas and technologies, allowing for Islam to quickly spread across Africa. For example, the image, The Great Mosque in Timbuktu, provided a portrayal of the active economic and trading area, spreading ideas from a variety of African civilizations. The presence of the Mosque greatly added to Timbuktu’s religious significance. It grew as a center of Islamic culture, attracting many travelers along the trans Saharan trade route. The new vastness of the trade route due to the increased travel efficiency allowed for an even wider variety of people to communicate through trade centers such as The Great Mosque in Timbuktu, leading to further developments within many economical and cultural aspects of the interacting societies. The introduction of Islam claimed its effect on not only the education and economy of North and West Africa, but also on its social order, which continued to include social hierarchy, but decreased the use of slavery. Slavery existed in Northern Africa, but, Muslims were not allowed to be enslaved, causing for the majority of the slaves to be consisted of sub Saharan Africans. There was also a well defined upper class made up of ruling families, senior officials, and wealthy merchants.
Despite this, Islamic societies remained egalitarian, as it states in the Koran that in the eyes of Allah, all men are equal. Along with the social organization, women remained mainly at the home, acting as storytellers and centrally housewives. These societies believed that spiritually, men and women were equal, but physically not, therefore producing the divide between genders and female reliance on men. Within the document Mansa Musa of Mali, Al’Umari, an Arab traveler and Islamic scholar, observes the effect of Islam on Mali. The majority of the Mali civilization was Islamic and at this time, their ruler was Mansa Musa. Citizens of Mansa Musa worship him like a god and also offer their daughters as gifts to Mansa Musa, and he possessed them like slaves.
This portrays a very drastic gender patriarchy to the point of slavery, but once Mansa Musa discovers that this practice of enslaving people went against the Quran, he abandoned this tradition. Still, there was still a class divide shown through their burial traditions. Dead people were not buried with respect unless they are high class.
The author of this document, Al’Umari, provided a unique perspective to other documents on Mansa Musa as he set out to create a strictly unbiased documentation of Mansa Musa’s in contrast to government accounts. Therefore, his document is one of few most accurate accounts of Mansa Musa’s rule during this era, pointing out the positive as well as negative characteristics of his rule. In comparison, Ghana also maintained its social hierarchy. Within the document, Glimpses of the Kingdom of Ghana in 1067 CE by a Muslim Spaniard named Al-Bakir, the roles of the king, governors, and lower classmen, are described. This document originate from the 11th century when Al-Bakir traveled through Ghana, taking note of its complexity and lavishness, focusing heavily on its government bureaucracy and order. During this time period of his observations, Islam was slowly incorporating itself into its ranks, as Muslim authorities took positions of power.
Al-Bakir notes the ranks of status starting at the King, then to the governors, then to the traders, known as “Nougharmarta”. He was fascinated by the structure of their government and seemed awestruck by the surplus of gold and salt that he saw within the region, most likely creating an exaggeration of the society and king’s riches. This is just another example of a civilization in West Africa continuing to contain social class and divide within its societies, but just evolving slightly to incorporate Islamic faith into its governments and culture. The Islamic effect for many of the previously stated changes and continuities on North and West Africa is evident in the changes of art preserved during the post classical era. Because of the disapproval of the use of humans or animals within its art, Islam encouraged Africa’s predilection for geometric design and the use of patterns within textile surfaces and crafted commodities. Islam also existed side by side with traditions such as masquerading. Such practices were viewed as adscititious rather than against Islam.
One example of the coexistence of art and Islam therefore affecting the artistic preferences was noted by Ibn Battuta, who visited Mali in 1352–53 witnessing a masquerade performance at the royal court of its Muslim king (Document 7). Since Islam’s introduction, it has influenced a wide variety of art forms in Africa, architecture, being its best-preserved and most distinct legacy of Islam’s history within Africa. Specifically, Mosques are one of the most important architectural examples of the significant shift of African art created by the interaction between African peoples and Islamic faith.
Further supported in The Catalan Atlas by Abraham Cresques, Mosques, prominent around the Mali Empire, contain onion shaped domes as roofs. This represents their connection to Islam and their change due to Islam, as many Islamic mosques incorporated similar characteristics. The changes and continuities that occurred in post-classical North and West Africa marked a clear departure from the classical era, perpetuating a new age. While the substance and route of trade as well as the continuance of social hierarchy resisted change during this period and remained quite similar to that of classical Africa, the radical changes that it underwent brought Africa into the post-classical world.
These cultural and economic advancements made Africa increasingly connected and developed. Though North and West Africa are just two regions of many that were influenced by trade and religion, these forces were powerful across the globe and truly transitioned the world out of classical times, setting the stage for more advanced cultural and economic developments in the years to come.